The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” (Luke 4:5-8 NIV)
Situational ethics. Doing something wrong to achieve something that is right. Jesus was faced with this very situation, one that we too are faced with from time to time. He was aware of the evil in the world. He knew where it came from, and the devil who he was confronting was a large part of the reason. He saw the effects of the devil’s work – sadness, pain, loneliness, sickness, depression, isolation, conflict, poverty, exploitation, injustice, emptiness. Jesus had another agenda – love, joy, peace, health, happiness, functional life giving relationships, meaningful work, purposeful existence. Jesus had come to the earth, God’s son in human form, to achieve these goals, and the Father had a strategy for achieving that. Now the devil offered Jesus another way, an easier way. He offered Jesus the power and authority he needed to influence the “kingdoms of the world.”
How did the devil get such power? This story of Jesus in the wilderness does not tell us. But it is not hard to see evidence for a supernatural evil personality when we observe the world in which we live, so what this devil said to Jesus is evidently true. If such a person exists – a devil with an agenda for destruction – we don’t have to look far to see him at work. Evil in the world is a phenomenon that is hard to explain. This passage goes some way to explaining it, as far fetched as angels and demons may seem to the modern secular mind.
The extraordinary thing is that the devil here offers to relinquish his power, to lay down his evil work, to give the authority to Jesus instead. Jesus is given the opportunity to right the wrongs, to fix things up, to begin the job of reversing the devil’s work of thousands of years. He is given an alternative to the strategy that his Father had planned to achieve the same goal, an alternative that may well have been much more attractive to him, given the suffering and pain that his Father’s plan involved and of which he was becoming increasingly aware. Jesus was given a pain-free short cut to a better world.
And yet he said no, for one reason. The price was too high. The short cut involved doing something that was simply wrong. It involved displacing God from his rightful position as the focus of worship and giving that place to the devil. It is likely that part of the reason he said no was that he knew the devil was a liar, and would not follow through on his promise. But even if he had believed the devil’s offer, I believe he would have said no just the same. Because saying yes would alter the right order of things, and would ultimately have defeated the good purpose that Jesus had in mind, of a better world. With Satan in the highest place instead of God the world would ultimately be engulfed in darkness. I can’t help thinking of Mordor and the Dark Lord in the film, Lord of the Rings. Such a world is unbearable to imagine. Yet worshiping Satan would look like that in the end, for all the empty promises the devil might offer on the way there. There simply was no short cut for Jesus, and he knew that, despite the devil’s tempting. The Father’s way was the only way to light and life, as much as the devil might try to convince Jesus otherwise.
Worship is the concept at the centre of this story. Worship is a word that describes the right relationship of the Creation to the Creator. Worship is something that rightly belongs only to God. When worship belongs to God things are right in the world. But from the beginning of his existence the devil has been trying to take God’s position from him. He has been trying to put himself in that place. He knew that if he could get Jesus to worship him he would have won his ultimate victory. He would have usurped God’s throne. Of course this may well have been delusional thinking on the devil’s part, but he was willing to try anyway. Thankfully for us, he failed. Thankfully for us, Jesus knew the way things should be. He was not prepared to do something intrinsically wrong even to achieve goals that were good and wholesome and worthwhile.
The word worship is associated with religion for many of us, but it is not necessarily just a religious concept. It describes a human activity, or attitude. Worship is the attitude that we have to that which is most important in our life. We worship many things, we honour them, we give our loyalty and allegiance to them, we speak up for them. Worship is the act of making something the most important in our lives. It could be money, or status, or power, or position. It could be a person, or a place, or Creation itself. It could be material, or it could be spiritual, natural or supernatural. Satan wants to be worshiped, but in a world where many people do not believe in Satan I believe the devil is willing to make do with letting people worship anything but God. Satan’s agenda is that God will be replaced – preferably by himself, but anything else will do. As long as he can stop people from worshiping God.
We too are tempted in the same way as Jesus. We are tempted to take short cuts, to do wrong things, even in the pursuit of what is right. This is a moral and ethical minefield, of course, because sometimes there seems to be no other way. Perhaps the most helpful guide for deciding about any action is to ask ourselves what or who we are worshiping in our actions, what or who occupies the highest place? It is clear that if Jesus was to accept the devil’s offer he would be replacing God as the object of his worship. Are our actions or attitudes in our workplace, our homes, our recreations, doing that?